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If I Stay
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating:
Rated PG-13 for thematic elements and some sexual material
Release Date:
August 22, 2014

 

The Amazing Spider-Man 2
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating:
Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action/violence
Release Date:
May 2, 2014

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For
Lowest Recommended Age: Adult
MPAA Rating:
Not rated
Release Date:
August 22, 2014

 

Bears
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating:
G
Release Date:
April 19, 2014

When the Game Stands Tall
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating:
Rated PG for thematic material, a scene of violence, and brief smoking
Release Date:
August 22, 2014

 

Need for Speed
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating:
Rated PG-13 for sequences of reckless street racing, disturbing crash scenes, nudity and crude language
Release Date:
March 14, 2014

Saw

posted by rkumar
C
Lowest Recommended Age:Mature High Schooler
Movie Release Date:2004

Grizzly does not mean scary, which is a lesson that first-time director James Wan and co-writer (and actor) Leigh Whannell do not master in this 100 minute long mish-mash of a horror flick.

A thoroughly intriguing if ghoulish premise, some original nightmarish images, and a young director eager to show off his talents make the movie atmospheric and intense. However, the whole thing gets caught in the razor wire of shoddy acting, a sociopath who makes you go “huh?”, a lack of engaging characters, and a morass of internally inconsistent details. The bitter taste in your mouth when you leave will not be fear, but instead will be disappointment, that what could have been a smart, original horror-fest turned into such an uneven wannabe.

Anyone who has seen the brilliant and intense trailer will be familiar with the key plot elements. Three men –a doctor, a corpse, and a voyeuristic photographer—are locked in a windowless room for reasons unknown. The doctor, Lawrence (Cary Elwes, who spends several scenes substituting a smirk for acting), is sleepily calm, seeming to accept his lot, whereas Adam (Leigh Whannell) vacillates between empty rage and suspicion. Together with the clues that they have been given, including a mini-cassette player, photographs and two small saws, Adam and Lawrence seek to solve the riddle and escape.

As with many intriguing 30-second concepts, the execution of the story starts getting bogged down within minutes. Lawrence and Adam alternate telling their stories in flash-backs, which lay out what they know about their situation and the person responsible, known as the “Jigsaw Killer”. When the movie jumps into the past, it follows two detectives (Danny Glover and Ken Leung) investigating a series of murders, where individuals are left in deadly traps and must do something horrific to survive. For example, a woman must root out a key in a man’s intestines to unlock the deadly “reverse bear trap” strapped to her head even though the man is drugged but alive. The killer lets it be known that the point of her situation –as with each of his macabre traps— is to teach her to appreciate life more. Or something. By this point, the audience is just there to see what the next life-threatening situation will be and whether Lawrence and Adam will ever get around to sawing through their legs to get out of the room.

Wan and Whannell clearly have been influenced by modern horror stalwarts like “Se7en”, “28 Days Later”, and “The Ring”, which results in a stilted form of brinksmanship where the end game is the most memorable gruesome image. Tying the scenes together, much less ending the movie with a tight little knot, is beyond their story-spinning ken this time. However, they deserve recognition for aiming high and for providing an engaging if ultimately disappointing ride.

Parents should know that this movie is the stuff of nightmares, even if the inured horror aficionado might not find it scary. The images of torture and death are brutal and explicit, lingering in mind long after the movie ends. There are multiple on-screen deaths, a child’s life is threatened, characters die, a father is forced to make terrible decisions to protect his family, and there are no scenes free of peril. There are references to suicide, adultery, drug addiction, madness, and self-mutilation. There is strong language, and characters smoke. Underlying the killer’s motive is the notion that everyone deserves to be tortured and that there are no innocents.

Families who do choose to see “Saw” might wish to discuss the killer’s motivation, whether the deaths are consistent with that motive, and what the characters might have done differently. They also might wish to talk about the resonance (or lack thereof) of movies where characters face death and re-evaluate their lives and priorities. Do Lawrence or Adam become more appealing characters as you know them better and as their fate looks bleaker? Do their choices become clearer as they reassess their priorities? What do you think the “right” life would be like so as not to attract the killer’s attention?

Families who enjoyed this movie should see the scarier and more clever “Se7en”, which also features a grotesquely creative killer with an upside-down moral compass, devious deaths, and the no-loose-ends denouement that this flick aspires to but cannot provide. Other recommended movies that seem to leave their fingerprints on “Saw” include 28 Days Later, The Usual Suspects, The Ring and Trainspotting, all of which feature disturbing violence, mature content, and grizzly, bizarre, macabre and just plain bloody images.

Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason

posted by rkumar
B
Lowest Recommended Age:Mature High Schooler
Movie Release Date:2004

In the first movie, Bridget Jones (Renee Zellwegger) learned that she could be loved just as she was. Now she has to figure out whether she can love herself.

As the sequel begins, she has had six blissful weeks with Mark Darcy (Colin Firth), the man of her dreams. But happily ever after does not work for movies, so something has to go wrong.

Bridget’s fears about her own inadequacy lead her to break up with Mark just as who should show up as the latest addition to her television news program, but Daniel (Hugh Grant), still the all-but-irresistible bad boy who knows just what Bridget wants to hear. When they are assigned to work together on a travel piece about Thailand, Daniel expresses an interest in Bridget and her giant panties. Bridget will have to choose between two men and two notions of herself.

And along the way she will do all the Bridget things we love to see, mostly meaning making a fool of herself by squeezing into a too-tight dress, speaking out at the wrong time, or managing to give the camera a close-up of her rear end.

In other words, this is pretty much the same movie as the first, but both the heroine and her story have lost a good deal of their charm.

What we loved about Bridget was the spirited way she took on the world. Bridget may have been clumsy, physically and socially, but she had so much heart that we, like Mark, loved her just the way she was. Not so much anymore, no matter how much we want to. She comes across as not just graceless but thoughtless and careless. Either because of its own insecurity about the appeal of its heroine or an effort to up the fantasy ante, the film keeps telling us how much EVERYONE loves Bridget. But that is not the same as making us love her.

The incidents in the film are just repetitions of the first (discussions of large panties, ugly Christmas sweaters, completely inept Mark/Daniel fight scene) or outlandish variations that fall a little flat. In a particularly outlandish development, a Midnight Express/Brokedown Palace plot twist lands Bridget in a Thai jail, accused of cocaine smuggling. There is simply no way to handle a scene like this in a romantic comedy, and the efforts to make Bridget’s prison experience endearing by having her loan out her Wonderbra and teach her cellmates to sing Madonna songs are a little creepy.

Firth, Grant, and Zellwegger are always a pleasure to watch, the script has some funny moments, and it’s always nice to see Bridget find a way to a happy ending. But what would have made this one a happier ending for all of us is if they just let her keep the first one, just as it was.

Parents should know that the movie has explicit sexual references and situations including prostitution and a pregnancy scare, very strong language, a great deal of drinking and smoking, hallucinogenic mushrooms, a character who is a drug dealer, and a lot of very irresponsible behavior handled in a light-hearted fashion with not much by way of consequences. There is some comic violence.

Families who see this movie should talk about why it was hard for Bridget to trust Mark’s feelings for her. They should also talk about the problems Bridget encountered in Thailand.

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy the first movie, Bridget Jones’s Diary, Notting Hill, and Four Weddings and a Funeral.

Tarnation

posted by rkumar
A-
Lowest Recommended Age:Mature High Schooler
Movie Release Date:2004

Jonathan Caouette, “Tarnation’s” director/writer/producer/cinematographer/ composer/editor and leading man, took home movies and other family memorabilia, added some cultural flotsam and jetsam, ran them through a computer program, and made a searing and unforgettable documentary of love and loss.

It is primarily the story of Caouette’s mother, Renee, a lively and beautiful young girl whose parents authorized a series of shock treatments after she became paralyzed following a fall. From that point on, her life was one of mental illness and abuse. A brief marriage ended so quickly that her husband never knew she became pregnant with Caouette. She abruptly took her young son to Chicago, where she was raped as he watched. She was hospitalized and he was put in foster homes, where he was abused. Later he was adopted by his grandparents, Renee’s parents.

After he smoked two joints, not knowing they were laced with PCP, Caouette was diagnosed with a disassociative disorder, a sense that he was living outside himself. That is probably a significant factor in both his ability and his need for documenting his life. The film includes footage Caouette took of himself when he was still a child. At age 11, with a scarf around his head, he performs a Blanche Dubois-style monologue he wrote himself, compulsively touching his hair as he recounts his story, as though to reaffirm that he is still there.

He is still reaffirming his existance as he examines it. Caouette combines family photos and home movies with stock footage and simple special effects that splinter the images the way the events they depict shattered Caouette’s life. Fragmented story-telling mirrors fragmented lives (though it is jarring to be suddenly presented with a sibling we never heard anything about). Instead of a voice-over, background is provided by affectless, unemotional words that seem to float on-screen, adding to the sense of dislocation, of fractured fairy tale. Cauette does not tell us how he feels, but we see that he loves his mother deeply, even after the drug overdose leaves her brain-damaged. Her final scenes would verge on the grotesque, even exploitive, if not for the ferocity of his devotion to her.

It is already the stuff of legend that Caouette’s budget for this film was just $218. While that figure does not represent the many post-production costs (the licensing fees for the songs alone must have run thousands of dollars), the low-tech, modest quality of the film gives it a found art quality that suits its tone and source material.

Parents should know that this movie has extremely painful and mature material, with explicit and graphic sexual references including rape, mental illness, exceptionally strong language, drinking, smoking, drug use, a drug overdose, and harrowing mental and physical abuse. Strengths of the movie include its theme of commitment and survival despite the direst circumstances and challenges and its sympathetic portrayal of loving and loyal gay characters.

Families who see this film should talk about what kind of movie their own history and memorobilia would create.

Families who appreciate this movie will also appreciate Crumb and Capturing the Friedmans.

The Polar Express

posted by rkumar
A-
Lowest Recommended Age:Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
Movie Release Date:2004

“Are you sure?”

This is a question asked several times during this movie, based on the exquisitely lovely Chris Van Allsburg book. It is a fitting question for a story about a boy struggling with his beliefs about Christmas.

It begins with a man remembering a Christmas Eve of long ago, when a boy whose name we never learn lies very still in his bed. It isn’t because he is too excited to sleep. He isn’t staying awake because he wants to hear Santa. He is afraid that he will not hear anything. He is getting older and better able to question what he has been told based on what he reads in newspapers and the encyclopedia. It is getting harder for him to believe.

The boy hears a sound and runs outside in the snow. An enormous locomotive pulls up in front of his house and the conducter invites him to board. He looks out the window and it appears that his snowman is waving goodbye.

The train is bound for the North Pole and our unnamed hero/narrator will have many adventures and find the answer to his questions before he wakes up in his own bed on Christmas morning.

The boy wants to believe. But he doesn’t want to be bamboozled, or “railroaded.” Seeing is believing. But he also doesn’t want to be a doubter, like Scrooge. Director Robert Zemeckis has done a fairly good job of maintaining the integrity of the brief story as it is expanded to feature length. The complications of the journey are well-paced and consistent with the story’s themes, though the know-it-all character becomes grating very quickly. It is less successful after the arrival at the North Pole, when the expasion starts to feel like filler, particularly when a nice selection of timeless Christmas standards on the soundtrack gives way to a lackluster rock song that brings the story to a standstill for no discernable reason. And the wonder of Christmas seems a bit too centered on the pleasure of getting gifts, particularly for the lonely boy, whose past neglect on Christmas — and present present — is never explained.

The animators have done their best to preserve the look of Chris Van Allsburg’s lovely illustrations. The result is attractive, if coarser and less graceful. There are moments of great beauty, especially the vertiginous ride as we watch a golden train ticket carried away by an eagle. And there are wonderfully imaginative images, dancing waiters pouring hot chocolate from silver pots with triple-spouts, Santa’s huge workshops with viewing screens for naughty-nice monitoring and pneumatic tubes for transporting toys, and sometimes people.

But the greatest challenge in animation, whether hand-drawn or computer-generated, is human beings. Humans are complex and unpredictable. And we know human faces so well that the slightest discrepancy in expression feels chilly at best and becomes a major distraction at worst. Here, director Robert Zemeckis, who pioneered new technologies with Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and Forrest Gump oversaw the development of a new technique based on filming the actors in live action and then “capturing” their performances in computer animation. The result has a slightly chill and dreamy, even ghostly quality. To an extent, that suits the story’s mood and setting. It detracts from the story that the animators have not quite mastered facial expressions or the weight of people and objects. But the voice of Tom Hanks in six different roles, including the conductor, a mysterious hobo, and Santa, adds real warmth.

Parents should know that the movie may be too intense and frightening for the youngest children. There are roller-coaster-y action sequences with some close calls, but no one is injured. Some children who are grappling with their own beliefs about Christmas may find the movie unsettling, but most will find it reassuring.

Families who see this movie should talk about each of the lessons punched into the tickets given to the children. Why was each of those lessons the right one for that child? They should also talk about the difference between that which can be proven and that which must be believed without proof. When the conductor says, “Sometimes the most real things in the world are the things we can’t see,” what is is talking about? What is a “crucial year?” Why can’t some people hear the bell? Who is the hobo and why is he there?

Families who enjoy this movie should read the marvelous book, written and illustrated by Chris Van Allsburg, and his others, especially Jumanji and The Mysteries of Harris Burdick. They will also appreciate other Christmas stories like Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol and How the Grinch Stole Christmas. And they will enjoy learning more about the Northern Lights.

Previous Posts

If I Stay
Hamlet asked it best. "To be, or not to be: That is the question." We struggle through, worrying about whether someone likes us or whether we will be accepted at the school of our choice

posted 6:00:09pm Aug. 21, 2014 | read full post »

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For
If you want to not just see but hear an eyeball being pulverized, then see "Sin City: A Dame to Kill For."  If you want to see and hear it in the company of an audience who thinks that's

posted 5:59:27pm Aug. 21, 2014 | read full post »

When the Game Stands Tall
This dreary assemblage of every possible sports cliché has one thing in common with the game it portrays. Every time it seems to be going somewhere, it stops. More frustratingly, it wastes the opportunity to tell a good story by trying to squeeze in too many great ones. There are too many crises

posted 5:59:00pm Aug. 21, 2014 | read full post »

Christian Indie Films of 2014
This year has already seen a remarkable and perhaps unprecedented number of Christian and Biblically-based films, from big-budget epics like "Noah" and "Son of God" to small faith-oriented films like "God's Not Dead."  There is an excellent summary of four Christian independent films of 2014 on In

posted 3:59:03pm Aug. 21, 2014 | read full post »

Frank: The Real Story of the Singer With the Paper-Mache Mask
One of the handsomest men alive spends almost the entire movie wearing a huge round paper maché head in "Frank," a moving film inspired by the real-life story of the late Frank Sidebottom.  Michael Fassbender plays Frank, a sweet-natured but very quirky musician who wears his big head mask even in

posted 9:10:16am Aug. 21, 2014 | read full post »


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